by Dionne Greenlee-Jones
Emancipation. Self-Determination. Freedom. Independence. Deliverance. Enfranchisement. Liberty. Release. Unchain. Unshackle. Liberation.
These powerful words point to foundational concepts behind the establishment of Juneteenth on June 19, commemorating the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans in the United States. Juneteenth is a holiday older than many, but it was only recently designated as a federal holiday. Many are still unaware of its origins. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture offers a brief history:
Watch Night services were precursors to Juneteenth observances. They still take place today with many African Americans coming together in faith communities to welcome the New Year. Most gather to reconnect and celebrate “coming this far.” Watch Night is an opportunity to rejoice at reaching another year with its promise of more progress.
The historical, formal and political act of granting freedom to enslaved people from 1863 through 1865 was a monumental step toward the liberation of marginalized and persecuted people. Unfortunately, newly emancipated African Americans continued to suffer deliberate disenfranchisement, abuse and harm from those in power who fought to retain the privileges, wealth and benefits built on chattel slavery.
Most African Americans, regardless of when they heard the freedom bell ring, continued to suffer. The PROMISE of freedom then and now is full of a brokenness that has yet to be repaired. Juneteenth reminds us of what happened, what failed to take place, and our obligations to address the harms inflicted on those still waiting to experience a more complete freedom.
From a health equity lens, we can witness these effects today. Our pursuits to support healthier outcomes in our most vulnerable communities, many of them BIPOC, are ongoing. We must constantly work to address systemic racism and health inequities that chattel slavery forged decades ago. Health disparities in the African American community are rampant. Juneteenth, while often celebrated, is a sobering reminder that we still have much work to do – together.
The ability to self-determine one’s quality of life is a gift rooted in this legacy of emancipation. Today, Juneteenth is still about deliverance from poverty, hunger, unfair housing practices, and more. Juneteenth is an invitation to envision a life where all are unshackled from binding ties and barriers, where resources are readily available to support every family’s wellbeing, and the pursuit of generational wealth is a reality for all. Our team at Impact Health is honored to assist in liberating opportunities for health across our region, including African American communities. But there is much work yet to do.